MANILA — The government should protect its rights over natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, even from those it deems as friends like China, the head of an independent think tank said Wednesday, after Malacañang said that Chinese fishers can venture in Manila's waters.
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo on Tuesday said the government would "tolerate" China's fishermen in the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) because the 2 countries are "friends."
The 200-nautical-mile EEZ includes Recto (Reed) Bank, an area also claimed by Beijing, where a Filipino fishing boat was hit and sunk by a suspected Chinese militia vessel last June 9, leaving 22 crew men adrift for hours before they were rescued by a Vietnamese craft.
A United Nations-backed court in 2016 gave Manila exclusive rights over this area, which means that this "is not disputed territory anymore," said Stratbase ADR Institute president Dindo Manhit.
"It's the role of government to defend what has been granted the Filipino republic and part of this role is to protect our maritime rights, protect our territory -- even from friends, even from friendly nations," he told ANC.
The Philippines, he said, is a small nation and "cannot hold on to anything except the international rule of law", which he dubbed as "the great equalizer."
"That equalizes us against what some would say a great power, stronger nation. Our government should hold on to what makes us strong... It's the law that can protect our fishermen, the human face of conflict in Reed Bank, conflict in other places," said Manhit.
The analyst urged the government to "build a coalition of nations who would like a rule-based order in South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea."
Competing claims over the South China Sea are a point of regional contention because trillions of dollars of goods pass through it, and rich petroleum reserves are thought to sit deep beneath its waters.
President Rodrigo Duterte has largely set aside the Philippines' row with Beijing over the key waterway to court trade and investments, but he has occasionally criticized China's actions there.
Duterte over the weekend agreed to a joint probe of the Recto Bank incident with China, but on Monday raised doubt that the move can resolve the issue.
With a report from Agence France-Presse